The Pirates were baseball’s worst team in 2020, although that came as little surprise following a winter where their only moves of note were to fire their manager, fire their GM and eventually trade away their best position player. They’ll have the top pick in next summer’s draft and another offseason that could subtract some notable names from the big league roster.
- Gregory Polanco, OF: $14MM through 2021 (includes buyout of 2022 club option; contract also contains 2023 club option)
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using his 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- Josh Bell – $5.7MM
- Steven Brault – $1.5MM
- Nick Burdi – $600K
- Kyle Crick – $800K
- Michael Feliz – $1.1MM
- Adam Frazier – $3.7MM
- Erik Gonzalez – $1.2MM
- Chad Kuhl – $1.4MM
- Luke Maile – $900K
- Colin Moran – $1.9MM
- Joe Musgrove – $3.4MM
- Jose Osuna – $1.1MM
- Richard Rodriguez – $1.1MM
- Jacob Stallings – $1.0MM
- Chris Stratton – $800K
- Jameson Taillon – $2.3MM
- Trevor Williams – $3.5MM
- John Ryan Murphy – $600K
- Nick Tropeano – $700K
- Non-tender candidates: Feliz, Gonzalez, Maile, Osuna, Murphy, Tropeano
- Chris Archer, RHP: $11MM club option with a $250K buyout
Other Contractual Obligations
- The Pirates technically owe Felipe Vazquez $7.75MM in 2021, but he’s not earning his salary while on the restricted list due to the abhorrent statutory sexual assault charges brought forth against him in 2019.
The Pirates will head into the 2020-21 offseason with an offense that scored the fewest runs in baseball (219) and a pitching staff that ranked 19th in ERA and 22nd in FIP. It’d be impossible to fix this club in just one offseason, but that’s of course not the goal of GM Ben Cherington and his staff, who surely knew they were signing on for a rebuilding effort when ownership fired former GM Neal Huntington.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, virtually every would-be trade chip on the roster saw his value disintegrate in what was a disastrous 2020 season. Chris Archer could have been one of the more intriguing arms on the trade market but didn’t pitch after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery. That procedure makes his $11MM club option a virtual lock to be bought out, which should formally close the books on one of the most lopsided trades in franchise history. Closer Keone Kela was a no-brainer trade piece but missed the early portion of the season on the Covid-19 injured list and immediately went down with a forearm issue that ultimately ended his season. Both physical setbacks surely deprived the Pirates of the chance to acquire some younger, cost-controlled talent.
Archer and Kela were far from the only injuries that hindered any would-be rebuilding efforts for Cherington & Co., however. Right-hander Joe Musgrove hit the IL with a triceps injury in early August and wasn’t able to return prior to the Aug. 31 trade deadline. He was still discussed in trades — the Blue Jays reportedly came close to striking a deal, in fact — but Musgrove stayed put and will surely be on the market again this winter. Hot-hitting Colin Moran could conceivably have garnered interest from teams in need of a bat; he was hitting .259/.326/.531 as of Aug. 23 — when he was hit by a pitch and diagnosed with a concussion that kept him out until the deadline had passed.
When all was said and done, Jarrod Dyson was the only player the Pirates moved — a deal that netted them a bit of extra cash to devote to international free agency. Musgrove and fellow righty starter Trevor Williams were discussed but never moved, and the Pirates’ remaining trade assets all flopped in terms of performance. Josh Bell, Adam Frazier and Gregory Polanco all hit so poorly that it’s hard to imagine many contenders even carried substantial interest — and that’s an issue that dovetails nicely into what a tough situation Cherington and his staff will face this winter. Here’s a look at what each of those three players did in 2020:
- Bell: .226/.305/.364, eight home runs, career-worst 26.5 percent strikeout rate
- Polanco: .153/.214/.325, seven home runs, career-worst 37.4 percent strikeout rate
- Frazier: .230/.297/.364, seven home runs, career-worst 15.2 percent strikeout rate
Under normal circumstances, any of those three would ostensibly be an appealing trade chip. Polanco has battled injuries and inconsistency, but at his best in 2018, he hit .254/.340/.499 with 23 home runs, 32 doubles, six triples, a dozen steals and decent defense in right field. Bell crushed 37 home runs last year, and while he’s a poor defender at first base, he’s also a switch-hitter who is controlled through the 2022 season. Frazier isn’t as well-known but entered the 2020 season with a career .279/.342/.420 slash. Like Bell, he’s controlled through 2022.
Minor struggles or a slight down season might’ve helped to keep interest in that trio alive, but Bell and Polanco, in particular, ranked among MLB’s worst players. Of the 310 players in baseball to take at least 100 plate appearances this year, Bell’s -0.4 fWAR tied him for 283rd, while Polanco checked in at 303rd. Maybe a team would still like to acquire Bell while his salary is manageable and roll the dice on his two years of club control, but no one would pay a premium to do so. Polanco’s salary now looks mostly immovable. Frazier’s season wasn’t quite as dire, but a trade would still be selling quite low on a typically steady producer.
There are similar quandaries in the rotation. Trevor Williams got out to a solid start to his 2020 season but was shelled over his final six starts. In his final 31 frames, he yielded 28 earned runs on 41 hits (12 homers) and 13 walks with 26 punchouts. Chad Kuhl posted a respectable 4.27 ERA through 46 1/3 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery, but he also walked 28 batters and hit a pair in that time, resulting in an ugly 5.48 FIP and 4.98 xFIP. Jameson Taillon moved another year closer to free agency in 2020, but the Pirates can’t be expected to trade him when he hasn’t pitched since June 2019 due to his second Tommy John surgery. All three of those pitchers are controlled through 2022, so there’s time to build some value back up next season.
If there’s one bright spot from the rotation that should bring the Bucs a nice haul this winter, it’s the aforementioned Musgrove. His forearm troubles limited him to 39 2/3 frames in 2020, but he was quite good when healthy (3.86 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 55-to-16 K/BB ratio, 48.2 percent grounder rate). Thankfully for the Pirates, Musgrove finished well upon his return and was utterly dominant in his final two outings: 13 shoutout frames against the Indians and Cardinals with a 21-to-2 K/BB ratio. He’s controlled another two seasons, and with a 4.23 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 8.6 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 in 325 1/3 innings since being acquired by Pittsburgh, he’ll be among the more appealing arms on the trade market this winter — especially considering a projected salary south of $4MM.
There are certainly some other arms the Bucs could market to the league’s many pitching-needy clubs. Southpaw Steven Brault turned in a career-best 3.38 ERA and 3.92 FIP through 42 2/3 frames, working mostly as a starter. His previous track record was limited, but he’s controlled through 2023 (and sings one heck of a National Anthem). Right-hander Richard Rodriguez quietly posted a 2.70 ERA/2.85 FIP with a 34-to-5 K/BB ratio in 23 1/3 frames. Chris Stratton, acquired from the Angels for cash in 2019, has a 3.76 ERA and matching FIP with 10.1 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 in 76 2/3 innings as a Pirate. Both relievers are controlled through 2023 as well.
Perhaps behind the plate, 30-year-old Jacob Stallings could be an under-the-radar trade candidate. Stallings has hit .256/.326/.380 over the past two seasons while also serving as one of the best defenders in baseball. He’ll be 31 in December, but he’s controlled through 2024. It’d be a leap of faith for a contending club to plug him in as a starter, but over Stallings’ past 353 plate appearances, he’s been worth 2.4 fWAR and rWAR alike. If nothing else, his considerable platoon splits would make his right-handed bat a strong complement to another club’s left-handed-hitting starter.
Certainly, that’s a lot of focus on what the Pirates could subtract this winter and not much of a look at what they could add. It goes without saying that the Bucs won’t be players for any of the market’s top free agents or any high-profile players on the trade market. That doesn’t mean Cherington’s group will entirely eschew some free-agent additions, however. In fact, there’s good reason to argue for the Pirates being fairly aggressive with short-term adds in free agency.
Assuming a Musgrove trade is ultimately put together, there will be space in the rotation to attract free-agent starters in search of rebounds. Taillon and righty Mitch Keller should have spots locked down, and either of Williams or Kuhl could get another look if they’re not traded. Adding a rotation piece in need of a bounceback — or perhaps a young, non-tendered arm with some upside — would be wise.
The current group of free-agent starters includes rebound candidates like Anthony DeSclafani, Michael Wacha, Alex Wood, Tyler Chatwood and numerous others. The non-tender market will add alternatives, with Jose Urena, Vince Velasquez and Steven Matz standing out as a few speculative possibilities. The Pirates have a fairly pitcher-friendly park and a clear path to innings — something many contending clubs won’t be able to offer.
That’s even more true in the bullpen, where there should be numerous spots up for grabs in Spring Training. Promising a few spots to relievers in search of a rebound is sensible given the dearth of proven arms in the current group and the potential to spin any new signings into a decent return come July. We see this sort of deal come together every year around the league, with Kansas City’s recent Trevor Rosenthal addition standing as the most recent example.
With the entire Pirates outfield struggling badly in 2020, the Bucs would be a nice soft landing spot for any free agent whose market collapses — a near inevitability given the expected lack of spending among teams and the potential flooding of the market following the non-tender date. They’ll want to leave space to allow 2019 Rookie of the Year candidate Bryan Reynolds to rebound and, quite likely, to give waiver pickup Anthony Alford a platform to audition. Shortstop-turned-outfielder Cole Tucker should get a look as well. Still, there ought to be enough fluidity to grab a veteran who could provide stability, competitive at-bats and perhaps be flipped as was the case with Dyson this year.
The infield should be mostly set with breakout sensation Ke’Bryan Hayes, who had one of the best showings of any rookie once he was finally called to the big leagues, getting the third base job from the outset. Moran and Bell can pair to handle duties at first base and, if it’s implemented permanently in the NL, at designated hitter. Frazier’s track record should be enough to give him a mulligan on his poor 2020 showing if he isn’t traded. The possibility of a non-tender involving Bell, Frazier or Moran can’t be completely ruled out, but any would register as a surprise.
It’s also plausible that the Bucs could add at shortstop, where none of Kevin Newman, Kevin Kramer or the aforementioned Tucker has solidified himself. The 27-year-old Newman was terrific in 2019 but, like many of his teammates, floundered at the plate in 2020. Right hip surgery, meanwhile, wiped out Kramer’s entire season. Perhaps the Pirates could give a versatile option like Freddy Galvis or Jonathan Villar a look on a bounceback deal if neither is finding much of a market. There may be some speculation connecting the Bucs to KBO star Ha-Seong Kim, who’ll be posted this winter, given the team’s prior winning of the Jung Ho Kang bidding back in 2014. But Kim is a better player, should cost more and should also field offers from more competitive clubs; a match here would be a surprise.
Broadly speaking, it should be a quiet offseason for a Pirates club that, more than anything else, needs to see key 2019 contributors rebound in 2021. It will be critical for Bell, Polanco, Frazier, Williams and others to reestablish some trade value as their club control continues to dwindle. Should that not pan out, there could be a very different and difficult set of decisions for the Bucs to make this time next year. In the meantime, Pirates fans can look forward to watching Hayes build on his astounding debut effort as they continue to dream of what next year’s No. 1 overall pick might bring.